SACRAMENTO — As state lawmakers kicked off their 1989-90 session, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown on Tuesday moved to clean up the Legislature's tarnished public image by creating a select committee on ethics with the power to investigate wrongdoing and recommend expulsion of Assembly members who flagrantly violate standards of conduct.
Brown also disclosed that he had removed several members from the Finance and Insurance Committee who he said had been viewed as too sympathetic to insurers. He said the committee shake-up was intended to "reflect pretty much what voters expressed" in approving Proposition 103, the Ralph Nader-backed insurance initiative. The previous membership, he said, had been too "responsive . . . to the insurance industry."
The creation of the new ethics committee was an outgrowth of the FBI's investigation into political corruption at the Capitol which has targeted five current and former legislators and some key aides.
Asked to assess the public's image of the Legislature in the wake of the investigation, Brown said: "Hopefully, it will change for the better in 1989." Noting that all Democrats and most Republicans in the Legislature won reelection in November, the Speaker told reporters: "Individually, apparently we're OK. But collectively . . . we don't fare very well" in the minds of most voters.
The Democratic Speaker, who barely survived an assault on his leadership last month from Republicans and dissident members of his own party, acted swiftly to shuffle the leadership and membership of some powerful committees. In the past he has been criticized for packing important committees mostly with loyalists in tune with his own political philosophy.
The Speaker's office did not immediately release the composition of the revamped committees. But Brown said that Assemblyman Patrick Johnston (D-Stockton), who opposed all five insurance initiatives on the November ballot, will be retained as chairman of the Finance and Insurance Committee.
Brown also disclosed that he had appointed a longtime ally, Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg (D-Sacramento), to head the Judiciary Committee. It is in the Judiciary Committee where efforts to change liability law--with the aim of bringing down the cost of insurance--have consistently faltered.
The Speaker characterized the creation of the ethics committee and the reshuffling of the other panels as "dramatic changes."
"My overriding desire is to make sure that I put good people in a place to do good policy work," Brown said.
A thick fog cloaked the capital as the Legislature returned, closing the airport and stranding many members in their home districts. As a result, most business was canceled and floor sessions were brief and largely unproductive. Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) was among those who missed the opening session after his plane was diverted to Oakland because it was unable to land in fogbound Sacramento.
The Legislature's already tenuous relationship with Republican Gov. George Deukmejian will be put to another test as early as Thursday, when both houses are poised to vote on his appointment of Auditor General Thomas W. Hayes to the job of state treasurer, left vacant since the death in August, 1987, of Democrat Jesse M. Unruh.
The Senate last year turned down Deukmejian's initial choice of Rep. Daniel E. Lungren of Long Beach. Influential Democrats in the Assembly have threatened to do likewise with the Hayes nomination.
Roberti has said he intends to vote for Hayes. But Brown was guarded in his remarks Tuesday, saying he has not made up his mind and that his decision may hinge partly on the recommendation of a special Assembly committee that is expected to vote today.
Brown's creation of the new ethics committee has the potential to bring great changes to a system that in recent years has been criticized for its ineffectiveness. Until now, questions of lawmakers' ethics were supposed to be referred to a two-house Legislative Ethics Committee, chaired by Republican Assemblyman William H. Lancaster of Covina. The committee, however, has not met in more than three years. It has no budget and no full-time staff.
Brown said he does not believe that the joint committee is "adequate (for) today's Legislature," adding that a new Assembly ethics committee is crucial for "public view, for public consumption."
Although the Speaker said the format has not been made final, he envisions the committee as having the power to investigate wrongdoing as well as respond to complaints and make recommendations on punishment, up to expulsion from office. The panel, he said, could also refer cases to prosecutors.
The committee, which will be headed for now by Assemblyman John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), must operate on a temporary basis until a bill formally authorizing it can be passed. Brown said he used his powers as Speaker to get the committee rolling right away.